September 2006 Archives

And Now For Something Completely Different

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I actually have more I want to say, about recent topics here, both movies and religion, together. But cleaning out a bunch of old notebooks the other day, I found this strange little thing, and just had to share. It's my attempt at an exercise I devised for my creative writing students several years ago. I gave them a list of common items and made them A) choose a specific example of that general class of thing and B) describe it in detail, and then if possible, C) explain how and why that thing was a metaphor for them. I did the exercise as well, and here are my answers. If anyone else wants to adopt this as a meme, I'd be flattered.

1. Dessert. Ice cream. Wait-- fudge upside down cake? No. Homemade ice cream from Aunt Hazel and Uncle Walter's freezer, like we would always have at family reunions. You can eat so much of it. (Well, I can eat so much of it.) Labor intensive. Rich. Both decadent and homey--after all, it's made by old Mormons and uses stuff you have on a farm. But it's rich and cold and again, labor intensive-- used to be seasonal-- How am I a big bowl of ice cream?

Or maybe hot Dr Pepper-- Eccentric-- goofy-- way too sugary-- bad for you-- not at all dignified. But I'm used to it

2. Article of clothing. A skirt-- no, a dress-- no, a skirt. I'm most comfortable in a dress or skirt--I like the freedom of movement-- plus pants never fit me. It doesn't have to be a girly girl skirt, but it can be-- but mostly I don't feel as comfortable in pants. I like how dressed float and flow

3. Kitchen implement. Knife. No--a dish. Why is a dish a metaphor or term for an attractive woman? Because she serves? Because you want to eat her up? Think more on this.
The dish ran away with the spoon.

Crouching Horse-Horse-Tiger-Tiger Hidden Dragon

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Since I've had a discussion of movies, I thought I'd continue the trend. Here's a review I wrote of "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" when it came out.

One of the first things I learned to say when I began studying Chinese was mamahuhu, which means "horse-horse-tiger-tiger." It is an idiomatic expression denoting something which is an uncomfortable hybrid, neither successfully this or that, nor even a worthy combination of the two; it's often translated as "mediocre" or "so-so." One of the first things I heard about Ang Lee's new movie, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, was that Lee had described it as "Bruce Lee meets Jane Austen;" one of his assistants called it "Sense and Sensibility with sword fights."

I'm a big fan of Austen, and if there were anyone who could blend Bruce Lee and Austen successfully, it would be Ang Lee, whose first three movies were set (at least in part) in his native Taiwan; his fourth movie was Sense and Sensibility (1995). But I would have to say that I found this movie more horse-horse-tiger-tiger than tiger-tiger-dragon-dragon.

Appropriately Instructive Movies about the Power of Art


A friend recently emailed me and asked me for suggestions for movies he might show in his composition course, which includes some essays on art--from what I know of the reader our composition department uses, I'm guessing Aristotle's Poetics and the like. He didn't ask me specifically for movies that are about the power of art--rather, he specified that he wanted movies "the artistic powers of which are slightly better than what the students are used to. Yet I don't want to bore them either."

But that didn't matter because I read the message wrong at first--it was first thing in the morning and I was tired--and spent a couple of hours trying to think up movies about the power of art which would please an audience of 18-year-olds.

How to Judge Religion


I have been mulling over Matt's question about how to criticize religion and decided I was wrong to distance myself from Ms. Armstrong, especially when I remembered that she'd offered the best summary of I'd ever encountered on how to judge religion. If I'm not as close to her thinking as I might be, it's not because I think she's wrong but because I think I'm not as wise or developed as she is, and so not able to espouse her ideas with the commitment they deserve. I really think her work--especially "A History of God"--should be required reading for anyone struggling with recovery from Mormonism. As evidence, I offer this passage from a paper I delivered on her at the 2005 Sunstone symposium. The paper was entitled "Pain, Sorrow, Suffering, Failure, Despair and Occasional Moments of Transcendence: The Wisdom and Insights of Karen Armstrong." Here's something--as in a long something, as in four single-spaced pages--from the close, in case you're interested.

Note: Although Armstrong has published more than a dozen books--most of which I've read--I cited only five in this presentation. They are, in order of publication, "Through the Narrow Gate," "Beginning the World," "A History of God," "The Battle for God" and "The Spiral Staircase."

In 1981, Armstrong published Through the Narrow Gate. It didn't earn much money, but it did gain her some attention--enough that she was invited to comment on religious topics on television. Eventually she lands a job writing the text for a six-part television documentary on Saint Paul, and it is while doing research for this project that she realizes how profoundly ignorant she is about the origins of Christianity. She comes to the conclusion that it was not Jesus Christ or any of his immediate disciples who were the inventors of Christianity, but Saint Paul--hence the name of the series, The First Christian. She also realizes that she has never thought carefully about Christianity's two "sister religions," as she calls them, Judaism and Islam.

She studies the three monotheistic religions' relationships to each other when asked to write a television series on the Crusades. Calling the story of the Crusades "a hideous chronicle of human suffering, fantacism and cruelty" (258), she notes that studying them has a primary salutary, albeit painful, effect: "it broke [her] heart" (Staircase, 258). This broken heart, is, of course, a necessary spiritual development. As she notes,

All the world faiths put suffering at the top of their agenda, because it is an inescapable fact of human life, and unless you see things as they really are, you cannot live correctly. But even more important, if we deny our own pain, it is all too easy to dismiss the suffering of others. Every single one of the major traditions--Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as the monotheisms--teaches a spirituality of empathy, by means of which you relate your own suffering to that of others. (Staircase, 272)

Learning how to cultivate and practice empathy is part of what makes it possible for her to write remarkably sympathetic biographies of Muhammad and the Buddha, activities in which she "had to make a constant, imaginative attempt to enter empathically into the experience of another" (Staircase, 279). Admittedly, this is a difficult thing to do. It takes self-awareness, generosity and discipline to cultivate empathy, and even more hard work to act on it rather than resorting to anger and retaliation when someone attacks us or something we love. It is also necessary if we want to make any progress as spiritual beings, and much of religion has been designed to help us do that hard work. If religion fails in that primary task, it fails supremely and definitively. One of final insights offered in The Spiral Staircase is the absolute necessity of empathy as a criterion in judging the value of religion: Armstrong states,

More on the Religion Thing


In recent comments, Matt has raised the issue of how to criticize religion fairly and appropriately, a question that has stymied many people far wiser than I. Spike mentions that this was a question Marx sincerely and seriously grappled with. Here's an editorial by Jonathan Freedland from the Guardian about the Pope's comments and how NOT to critcize religion. A couple of excerpts:

The Pope seems unaware that, for hundreds of millions of people, religious affiliation is not a matter of intellectual adherence to a set of abstract principles, but a question of identity. Many Muslims, like many Jews or Hindus, may not fully subscribe to the religious doctrine concerned, and yet their Muslimness, or Jewishness or Hinduness, is a central part of their make-up. Theology plays a lesser part than history, culture, folklore, tradition and kinship. In this respect, religious groups begin to look more like ethnic ones. Which means that a slur on a religion is experienced much like a racist insult. Plenty of secularists and atheists struggle to understand this - wondering why they cannot slam, say, Catholicism the way they might attack, say, socialism - but the Pope, of all people, should have no such trouble. He should realise that when he declares Christianity a superior religion, as he did some years ago, that is heard by many as a statement that Christians are superior people.


What makes me shudder about the Pope's Regensburg lecture is that he appears to join Osama bin Laden in this effort to cast the current conflict as a clash of civilisations. Complicatedly, and dense in footnotes, he is, at bottom, trying to establish the superiority of one faith over another. His argument is that reason is intrinsic to Christianity, yet merely a contingent part of Islam.

But what sense is there in such a contest? If the most senior figure in Christendom effectively takes Bin Laden's bait and says that, yes, this is a war of religions, ours against yours, how can this end? Such a war cannot be quieted by the usual means of diplomacy or compromise. There can be no happy medium in matters of core belief: Muslims cannot meet Christians halfway on their belief that God spoke to Muhammad, just as Christians cannot compromise on Jesus's status as the son of God.

Good times, aye?

I bought these shoes on sale years ago--like, ten--and left them in my closet to age. They were too mannish to suit my taste at that point--I know, I know, if I didn't really like them, why did I buy them? Well, I bought them because they were a super-duper bargain and because they are well made dark green Italian menswear Oxfords, and I knew, I just knew, some day they'd make me really, really happy. Sure enough, about two years ago, I pulled them off a top shelf, realized how awesome they are, and started wearing them with skirts. They are comfortable and a very pretty dark green--did I mention that they're green?

So, um, yeah, it's embarrassing to admit, but sometimes when I'm too busy to devote time to my own blog, I neglect other people's as well, not reading for a few days and then catching up on entries in batches. Which is what I'm doing this morning. I found this entry on Rebecca...and all that entails about trying to find a decent print news magazine to subscribe to. She asks for recommendations, and someone recommended "The Economist."

Which prompted me to leave this comment, which I am reproducing here because I like the story.

The Economist? Oh god, no! Run away in horror from The Economist! What a load of conservative tripe. My father gave me a subscription to said horrorshow for Chirstmas 2004, explaining his decision to do so by saying, "They endorsed Kerry for president."

To which I replied, "Dad, the freakin National Review, the conservative rag started by William F. Buckley, godfather of contemporary American conservativism, endorsed Kerry for president! Virtually everyone in the whole freakin' world [The Economist is British] realizes that George Bush should not be president!"

So then I got The Economist every freakin' week but couldn't bear to open it. It just started cluttering up my magazine stand and one day I decided to open an issue and saw that letters to the editor all still began with the saluation "Gentlemen."

It's the freakin 21st century and there's still some horrible retro news rag stressing that it's editorial board is male.

So that was it; I had to cancel my subscription. I called the toll-free number and talked to a very nice young woman who had to ask why I was canceling. I explained about the "Gentlemen" thing, adding, "Jesus fucking christ, can't these guys not act like assholes?"

To which she replied, very warmly and sympathetically, "It appears not."

And then I had to explain that it was a gift and ask her not to tell my dad that I was in essence returning his Christmas present.

She had no problem with that and agreed to send me the check for the refund, which was in the neighborhood of 60-70 bucks, and this was late April! If only I had canceled in early January.

p.s. Dale, I included a semi-colon in this post just for you.
p.p.s. Here's a great editorial by my idol Karen Armstrong on why what the pope said last week was bad.

What I'm Busy with Right Now


As I've mentioned, I'm really busy right now. But what is it I'm busy doing? Well, for one thing, I'm teaching a bunch of very full classes--I have more students this semester than I've ever had before.

One of the primary duties listed in my job description is teaching creative writing in general to undergraduates, and literary nonfiction writing in specific. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, literary nonfiction is an umbrella phrase typically encompassing autobiography, memoir and the personal essay. Some people call it creative nonfiction. My department calls it "literary" nonfiction instead of "creative" nonfiction because essentially all writing involves acts of creation but not all writing is literary, and we want to stress that we're striving for a certain quality of writing. I don't get my knickers in a twist when I hear the phrase creative nonfiction, but I HATE the acronym CNF.

A book I often teach in both literature and writing courses (though I'm not teaching it this semester) is A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, a memoir about the deaths of his parents less than a month apart from different types of cancer, and his subsequent experiences as the appointed guardian of his younger brother Toph, who is orphaned at age nine. It has its problems, but students generally like it, and I like it for its preface, where Eggers lays out some of the theoretical and critical issues involved in the writing and reading of literary nonfiction. For instance, he suggests that readers who are bugged by the fact that he claims to be telling the truth do what readers have been doing for centuries: pretend it's fiction. He also appraises the quality of his book, and gives suggestions for reading and enjoy it. He suggests that his readers skip pages 239-35, noting that those pages concern "the lives of people in their early twenties, and those lives are very difficult to make interesting, even when they seemed interesting to those living them at the time."

Given that my students are typically in their early twenties if not their late teens, this statement has dire implications for their efforts as writers of nonfiction.

However, one of the classic genres of fictions is the bildungsroman, (from German bildung, "building" and French roman, "novel"), or the coming-of-age novel. In fact, many venerated first "novels" are essentially coming-of-age memoirs disguised as novels by the changing of a few names and the fudging of a few facts.

What makes literature about people in their early twenties "interesting"? Is it really so hard to make these lives interesting? And what are the implications of these questions for young writers in creative writing classes--who are sometimes not merely in their early twenties, but their late teens? How do young writers acquire the wisdom, the vision, the craft, the perspective, the insight to make accounts of their early lives not merely interesting, but works of art?

Trying to find answers to that question that satisfy me and my students is part of what I'm so busy with right now. Oh, and explaining when and where to use commas.

New to My Collection


As I wrote Monday, I am really loving my camera. I wanted to come up with some worthy subjects to experiment on, and could think of nothing better than my shoes. This particular pair is among my recent acquisitions. I bought them this summer and unfortunately have not had an opportunity to wear them. I love them: they make my ankles look fabulous and I also like how the insole is pale blue, so that the shoe itself is a beautiful thing even when it's not on my foot.


An Obvious Compound Word


Today one of my students gave me a poem built in part on questioning something I apparently said about heartbreak.

When I first got home from my mission I was suffering from what I would eventually come to call religious despair. On my mission I was suicidally depressed, though I lacked the initiative and the energy to do anything about my grief. I could not eat or sleep. I wept uncontrollably for nine weeks, so bereft that I could not stop my tears even in public.

And then I finished my mission, went home, and went back to work on my undergraduate degree. I was young and pretty and from a middle-class family. I liked wearing bright blue mascara and clean clothes. I still attended church. My suffering did not involve addiction or physical violence.

And so no one believed me when I talked about my unhappiness. God forbid I try to write a poem about the despair I had experienced! I remember a middle-aged gay male bartender responding with undisguised loathing to a poem I submitted in class attempting to describe the young, chaste, female trauma I'd endured. How dare I, he proclaimed! How dare I believe I knew anything of heartbreak!

And now that I am middle-aged, a young man is saying basically the same thing, because.... I can pay my own mortgage? Because there's still no addiction and physical violence in my life?

OK, I don't know a thing about heartbreak. I know nothing of it. I relinquish any claim to so dignified a word. What I know--all I know--is grief's assault on the rest of the body. If you want to talk about suffering rooted in and expressed through phlegm and bile and blood and bowels, then hey, I have something to say about that.


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